Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Part IV

The Usefulness of Uselessness, Part IV
Discombobulated Virtuosity
by Scott Bradley

Shu The Discombobulated was a physical wreck. His body was so twisted out of shape that his chin was tucked into his navel. Yet by sewing and washing and divination he was able to feed himself and many others. When the government came snatching people for enforced labor and military service, they always passed him over. And when there was a bit of charity, he always got an ample share.

"A discombobulated physical form was sufficient to allow him to nourish his body, so that he was able to live out his natural life span," concludes Zhuangzi. "And how much more can be accomplished with discombobulated Virtuosity!" (Ziporyn)

What on earth is discombobulated Virtuosity!? Brook Ziporyn translates te as virtue or virtuosity. This is the te of the Tao Te Ching where it is usually translated as 'power' or 'virtue'. The usual explanation is that this use of the word 'virtue' is not intended to connote 'goodness', but rather that something in which is its effective power, as when we say, "The virtue of this herb is that it promotes clear-headedness."

This may be the best etymological and linguistic translation (and I am certainly in no position to dispute it one way or the other), but I prefer a more interpretative translation — one that expresses its meaning in terms of Taoist thought as a whole. I like "expression". Thus, the Tao Te Ching, becomes the Tao and Its Expression.

What things are, is Tao expressed. In the case of a tree, this is unambiguous — it can only express what it essentially is, a tree. In the case of human beings, however, things get more complicated. Although I sincerely believe that humanity, in all its expressions, is Tao manifest, it remains the case that humanity has the power to live in harmony or disharmony with is essential nature, its Taoishness. At present, it seems to me, the vast majority of the human expression is disharmonious. We are both individually and collectively a mess.

What then is discombobulated Virtuosity? It is an 'abnormal' expression of humanity, which is to say, it is in harmony with its essential nature. It is that uselessness, as the world sees it, which is so very useful.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.


  1. DIscombobulated...such a slangy word. Not sure how it would translate back to the Chinese. Shu is usually referred to as crippled, but that has become sort of a pejorative term; Bryan Bruya just calls him The Freak.

    In any case, your analysis is spot on. I like "Tao and Its Expresssion."

  2. Unrelated point.

    A tree is a tree to you and me. To a bird it is a bus stop, for a bat a place to hang, for a termite, lunch.

  3. And I think we are the only ones who make these observations.


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